HALFWAY THROUGH the season, the Liverpool manager, Gerard Houllier, believes his charges have finally turned the corner.
"We have a lot of work to do but we are going up," he said, after his side became the first to win at Middlesbrough in 14 months. He singled out his five-man midfield, who threw a shield in front of his three defenders to protect them both from the supply to Middlesbrough's rampaging forwards and from themselves.
For, while Paul Gascoigne was pushed backwards into less harmful areas and the tireless runs of Andy Townsend were curtailed, Liverpool's back line looked far from composed. Even given the gale, David James' kicking was poor, Phil Babb looked calamitously uncomfortable under high balls with Hamilton Ricard and Brian Deane behaving like bulls in china shops, and even Steve Staunton passed the simplest of balls straight to a red shirt - of Middlesbrough.
The home side's best moments came from Liverpool's unconventional defending. Their goal came when Deane outjumped Babb and outwitted James; Middlesbrough's closest effort was Babb's stooping header in front of James, who was expecting to gather Townsend's cross, and Ricard's clearest opening came courtesy of a strange back-header from Paul Ince.
Still, Liverpool did calm down after half-time, largely because their revolving forward line began to take the game to a defence that had lost its lynchpin.
"Gary Pallister had a fitness test before the game on his ankle and was feeling it after 10 minutes, when maybe he should have come off," Robson said. Pallister had first lost Ince, who set up Liverpool's first for Carragher, and then, unsettled by Michael Owen, back-passed for Mark Schwarzer to pick up and concede the free-kick that Jamie Redknapp blasted home for his side's second.
With Pallister substituted at half-time, it was Karlheinz Riedle's appearance on the hour in place of Robbie Fowler that sealed the game. Until then, Middlesbrough had a hope that a goalmouth gift would come their way but, with Riedle commanding the ball at the other end of the field, James and Co relaxed.
Steve McManaman replaced Owen for 15 minutes of free flowing football and back-heels, before Vegard Heggem danced downfield past three dispirited defenders and looped the ball over Schwarzer in the 89th minute.
Goals: Carragher (17) 0-1; Deane (33) 1-1, Redknapp (35) 1-2; Heggem (89) 1-3.
Middlesbrough (3-5-2): Schwarzer; Cooper, Vickers, Pallister (Fleming, h-t); Festa, Maddison (Stamp, 72), Gascoigne, Townsend (Beck, 78), Gordon; Deane, Ricard. Substitutes not used: Moore; Beresford (gk).
Liverpool (3-5-2): James; Carragher, Staunton, Babb; Heggem, Redknapp (Harkness, 90), Ince, Berger, Bjornebye; Fowler (Riedle, 58), Owen (McManaman, 76). Substitutes not used: McAteer; Friedel (gk).
Referee: G Poll (Tring). Bookings: Middlesbrough: Gascoigne, Festa, Cooper. Liverpool: Babb, Bjornebye, Riedle.
Man of the match: Schwarzer.